11/28/2012 10:16 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

The Gift of a Smile

"A silent epidemic" according to a U.S. Surgeon General's report. Described as "a true health crisis" in a recent Senate subcommittee report. Would you be surprised to know these words are referring to dental disease?

Millions of people suffer from poor oral health and dental needs in our country are overwhelming. About 17 million low-income children go each year without basic preventative care. An estimated 130 million Americans don't have dental insurance coverage. Lacking insurance or means to pay for dental care, people suffer silently or end up seeking costly care in emergency rooms.

For many, the pain is so overwhelming and care so far beyond their means that despair has set in. "I had basically given up hope," said Kyle M., a middle-aged father living in a small town in Oregon. "I was laid off in January and have had a terrible year since, especially watching my teeth deteriorate and not being able to do anything about it. I'd tried to get help, and it was a depressing, demoralizing experience every time. "

As a humanitarian relief and development organization, Medical Teams International is known for expertly responding to health crises around the world. But we're also addressing the oral health care crisis here in the U.S. Since 1989, the organization has provided a dental safety net for thousands of children and adults who lack dental insurance or a viable way to pay for urgently-needed services through the Mobile Dental program.

Traveling to more than 300 locations in the U.S., eleven converted motor homes -- fully-equipped and staffed by licensed volunteer dentists, hygienists and dental assistants -- provide professional dental care to those who, for severe hardship reasons, have no other access to dental care, including low-income families, homeless youth, veterans and the elderly. Last year alone, the program served over 2,600 school children, providing exams, preventative care, treating cavities and infections and promoting good oral hygiene.

By utilizing volunteer dental professionals and donated dental supplies, the Mobile Dental Program is able to provide effective dental care at an average of about $75, versus a $700 emergency room visit, per patient. And by offering free dental care at local sites like churches, schools, and shelters that are easily accessible within a community, the program attends to the well-being of families and helps reduce the burden on hospital emergency rooms and lower health care costs for everyone.

Medical Teams International is participating in #GivingTuesday by encouraging others to consider how they can help improve the health of their neighbors in need. The gift of good oral health through the Mobile Dental program is dependent on the generosity of so many. Over 900 volunteers share their time and expertise, hundreds of site partners provide outreach, space and resources to accommodate the clinics and compassionate donors give dental equipment, supplies and financial support.

That kind of generosity allows the Mobile Dental program to serve roughly 17,000 patients each year. Kyle is one of them. He says once he has found employment, the first charitable gift he'll give will be to the Mobile Dental program... but the smile on his face is truly the best gift of all.

The Gift of a Smile

Follow Medical Teams International on Twitter:

This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday -- which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 -- is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to to learn more and get involved.